Simone Melchior Cousteau was the matriarch of scuba diving — but have you heard of her? Of course, you’ll recognize the name ‘Cousteau,’ as the perhaps the most famous one associated with diving, and that of Simone’s business partner and husband, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. But let’s set aside the godfather for scuba diving for just one moment. Instead, let’s dive into the criminally underreported life and legacy of Simone Cousteau, who died in 1990.
Simone Cousteau’s early life
Despite being born on the Mediterranean French coast in 1919, Simone and her family soon moved to Japan. Her father, Henri Melchior, took a job as a director with Air Liquide (France’s main producer of industrial gases at the time). This, surprisingly, was the key to the invention of the aqua lung and the scuba diving apparatus we know today.
In 1937, Simone met Jacques Cousteau — at the time a naval officer — at a cocktail party when she was 17 and he was 26. They married the same year and went on to have two children, both of whom were born on the kitchen table.
Invention of the aqua lung
In 1942, Simone’s father provided financing and the manufacturing expertise of Emile Gagnan at Air Liquide to build the aqua lung. Would the diving industry look as it does today if Simone had never met Jacques? We’ll never know, but things could have turned out quite differently had the stars not aligned.
In no time, the Cousteaus’ zest for aquatic exploration led them to purchase the Calypso, a ship fueled by the family jewels and fur that Simone sold to make the voyage possible. The Calypso set off in 1952 on its maiden voyage to the Red Sea. Simone was the only woman on board.
Life onboard the Calypso
By 1963, Simone had become the world’s first female aquanaut by living in Starfish House, an underwater habitat, alongside her newfound role as mother, healer, nurse and psychiatrist to the all-male crew for 40 years, earning her the nickname “La Bergère,” meaning “The Shepherdess.”
As the world’s first female underwater videographer — arguably the first of either gender — Simone ensured that each exploration achieved its objective, filming the award-winning underwater footage we now associate with Jacques Cousteau for The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Exploration and Adventure.
As Jacques described, “She was the happiest out of camera range, in the crow’s nest of Calypso, for example, scanning the sea for whales. Nothing would get by her.”
He continued, “She lives to spend hour after hour in the wind and the sun, watching, thinking, trying to unravel the mystery of the sea.”
The legacy of Simone Melchior Cousteau lives on, not only in the deep love affair each diver has with the ocean, but also as a voice for conservation of earth’s beauty and biodiversity.
As is all too often the case in history, whispers of inspirational female figures disappear among louder stories we tell about male heroes. Let that not be the case with Simone Melchior Cousteau.